WASHINGTON, D.C. — Duke’s NCAA tournament games have been like expensive weddings for a bride and groom that just met. You’re going to have fun, Zion Williamson will hand you a preposterous video party favor that you can show your friends, and you will walk out wondering how long this thing will last.
The Blue Devils are three wins away from happily ever after. They are also fortunate they made it this far. In a bizarre NCAA tournament lacking buzzer beaters or major upsets, maybe it’s fitting that the No. 1 overall seed has provided the best drama.
Five days after doing what every parent at Disney World eventually wants to do—escape Central Florida—the Blue Devils managed to slip past Virginia Tech. How close was this? With 0.6 seconds left, down two, Virginia Tech called a play that absolutely worked, except for the part where the ball moves downward through an orange ring.
“The pass was perfect,” Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said. “Med caught it. He just missed it.”
Med is Ahmed Hill, the Hokies senior who could not believe his alley-oop bounced off the rim. But here is who could believe it: Williamson, R.J. Barrett and the rest of the Blue Devils. They believed to the end against UCF, and believed to the end against Virginia Tech. It is a belief borne partly from having the most top-end talent in the country, but not just from that.
The Duke team that heads to an Elite Eight matchup with Michigan State is a series of paradoxes. The Blue Devils have a dominant reputation but are not a dominant team. Their stars are as good as their hype, but the team is clearly flawed. The freshmen are competing for NBA draft position (or at least, they were at the start of the season, before Zion took over the world), but it doesn’t show up on the court. They struggle from the three-point line, which defines modern-day basketball, but win anyway. They are inexperienced but expect to make the big plays at the end of games, and they almost always do, even against Virginia Tech, one of the most experienced teams in the tournament.
“They had a lot of fans there,” Williamson said of the Hokies. “They went on their run, and it’s very loud and they’re saying ‘Let’s go, Hokies,’ (and) I’m not even worried about what’s going to happen. I’m just like, ‘Somebody is going to make the play for us.’”
Williamson is the nation’s leading source of highlights, but he is a stunningly well-rounded player. Friday night, he chased Hokies all over the court, threw a few crosscourt passes like he was tossing rocks into the ocean, shrugged off an early air ball, and went up for an alley-oop in a situation that might as well have come with a sign that read WARNING: DO NOT TRY ALLEY-OOP HERE.
Williamson had limited space. He had to go roughly to the moon to pick off a Tre Jones pass. He admitted later he had no idea where the rim was. And yet, there was an inevitability to the stunning display—as soon as Williamson bolted toward the rim, there was no doubt he would dunk whatever pass Jones threw. Later, as Virginia Tech star Justin Robinson drove to the rim, there was no doubt that Williamson would block his shot.
Zion toys with opponents, and he makes an absurd percentage of his shots—he sank 11 of 14 Friday. And yet, he still needs help. He got it Friday from Barrett, after a rough first half, and from Tre Jones, who made five of seven three-pointers and scored 22 points.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Jones “magnificent,” which he was, and he needed to be. The other Duke star freshman, Cam Reddish, was a late scratch because of knee trouble. Sophomore Alex O’Connell found out “10 to 12 minutes” before the game that he would start. He was unfazed.
This sounds strange, but it’s true: Duke wins because its most talented players use grit and character to overcome their own flaws. Williamson and Barrett are poor free throw shooters. Duke is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country. Yet the Blue Devils keep winning.
A team that barely escapes with wins over UCF and Virginia Tech should probably be an underdog against Michigan State, especially if Reddish can’t play. But a team with this much talent and poise should be the favorite to win it all. Duke does not always look like the team you imagine Duke to be, overwhelming people with talent. The Blue Devils are both worse and better than that.